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New Language Requirement Raises Concerns in Ukraine

The Law Needs Safeguards to Protect Minorities’ Language Rights

A man reads a newspaper at a metro station, in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 12, 2015. © 2015 AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov

A new legal provision on the use of the Ukrainian language, part of a broader state language law, raises concerns about protection for minority languages.

The provision, which entered into force on January 16, is stipulated in article 25 of the law. It requires print media outlets registered in Ukraine to publish in Ukrainian. Publications in other languages must also be accompanied by a Ukrainian version, equivalent in content, volume, and method of printing. Additionally, places of distribution such as newsstands must have at least half their content in Ukrainian.

The state language law requires that Ukrainian be used in most aspects of public life. The law was adopted and signed by former President Petro Poroshenko in 2019, as he was leaving office, with several provisions scheduled to come into force in subsequent years.

The law aims to revitalize the Ukrainian language and is part of government efforts to reinforce national identity after the fall of the Soviet Union. Some officials called it essential for Ukraine’s national security. Public opinion polls indicate that at least 60 percent of Ukrainians support certain provisions of the law.

Article 25, regarding print media outlets, makes exceptions for certain minority languages, English, and official EU languages, but not for Russian. Ukrainian authorities justify this by referring to the country’s European ambitions and “the century of oppression of … Ukrainian in favor of Russian.”

There are concerns about whether guarantees for minority languages are sufficient. The Venice Commission, the Council of Europe’s top advisory body on constitutional matters, said that several of the law’s articles, including article 25, “failed to strike a fair balance” between promoting the Ukrainian language and safeguarding minorities’ linguistic rights. It stated that “historical oppression of Ukrainian ... may lead to the adoption of positive measures aimed at promoting Ukrainian, but this cannot justify depriving the Russian language and its speakers of the protection granted to other languages…”

The issue of the language is highly politicized, especially in light of Russia’s ongoing military action against Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government has every right to promote its state language and strengthen its national identity. But it should ensure a balance in its language policy, to avoid discrimination against linguistic minorities.

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